Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Peak District, or, In Which I Walk Through the Snow and Meet the Grouse, Surviving to Tell the Tale

The upper reaches of the hills...were  blanketed with snow.
In daring the British weather to do its worst I must have offended one or the other of the fates, because when I awoke on the day I was supposed to have my last week-end away in Britain, I was sick.  But having made my travel arrangements, I hurried down, had a quick breakfast at the Pembroke buttery, and then made my way to the train station.  It wasn’t until I was already on the train that I realised that the morning’s meal would be my last at Pembroke (the buttery will have closed up by the time I returned), and that I hadn’t said good-bye to any of the friendly staff who give me a bad time about being the first person at breakfast every day.  In a weird kind of way, I find it sadder leaving people whose everyday kindnesses add to our lives, than leaving friends, likely because there is a good chance that I’ll see the latter again.
The rocky cairns and outcroppings which dotted the frozen world...

But there was no time to reflect further, for I was off on my vacation.  Not, as with other people whose vacation plans I’d been hearing about, to the Greek Islands, to Croatia, to the South of France, or for the more energetically inclined, on the Graduate Parlour’s sponsored trip to the Swiss Alps.  I was heading back to the Peak District which promised to be cold, dark and drizzly, largely because it is close and quiet.  Leaving Sheffield, where the sun was shining, I saw the first bits of snow, and then the train passed through the tunnel before entering Hope Valley, where the sun was most adamantly not shining.  It was a twilight world, though it was not yet two o’clock.  The clouds hung, not particularly low, but incredibly thick, and the upper reaches of the hills that rimmed the valley were blanketed with snow.  The higher of the ‘peaks’ were not even visible thanks to the mist and clouds.
To my everlasting horror, it launched itself into the air...

I made my way up to the hostel and found it deserted when compared to my previous visit.  The 80-odd schoolchildren were replaced by a French couple and me, and I spent the evening re-reading some of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and planning the morrow’s foray.

I decided that it would be nice to see Kinder Scout in the snow, and so after a hearty breakfast, set off up the valley, through the village of Edale, and began making my way up Jacob’s Ladder.  Here, the gentle flurries of snow suddenly gave way to a kind of miniature hail, made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that the wind was blowing my way.  There was nothing for it but to put my head down and plough forward, hoping that I wouldn’t run into a sheep or another walker (there was no danger of the latter—I didn’t see another soul during my Kinder Scout expedition).  The ascent was steep, but felt worse thanks to my rasping cough that was getting worse. 
...A monstrous bird as large as a Shire horse...

Half-way up the hail ceased and was replaced by giant snowflakes, the pitter-patter of the hailstones on ice or stone walls was exchanged for an awesome silence, broken as I reached the open moor by the howl of the wind.  The snow stopped, and I took advantage of my cleared field of vision to survey my surroundings.  It looked almost like a moonlit night on Kinder Scout, the snow-covered landscape assuming a bluish tint in the darkness.  The depth of the snow varied considerably thanks to the wind which piled it up in 2-3-foot drifts in some places, and in others swept it from the surface of the rocky cairns and outcroppings which dotted the frozen world.
I decided to retrace my steps...

I’d chuckled to myself on the way up at the thought of meeting my nemesis from my previous trip, the Red Grouse.  Neither it nor any other animal was likely to be out on a day as cold and inhospitable as this.  Imagine, then, my consternation when I heard a familiar squawk from ahead of me.  The Grouse emerged from behind a snowbank and uttered a louder, longer cry which translated roughly from the Grouse-ese as “You shall not escape so easily this time, pesky humanoid!  Prepare to meet your doom!”  And to my everlasting horror, it launched itself into the air and came at me in a ferocious aerial attack.  I dropped to one knee and readied a snowball, prepared to fend off its dreadful onslaught at all costs, and it must have read my resolve, for after circling twice, it winged away into the snow. 
The enshrouded Back Tor.

Flushed with victory, I carried on in the surreal landscape, dragging my feet to mark the way back.  The Grouse was not the only animal out, as it happened, and on several occasions, I saw mountain hares, in their white winter coats, dash from behind cairns and bound away across the snow out of sight.  But then I froze, for from behind a boulder rose what must have been the king of the grouse, a monstrous bird as large as a Shire horse.  My earlier assailant had simply been charged with leading me on and was now undoubtedly using its wings to erase my tracks.  I flopped to my knees, prepared to beg for mercy (Sherlock Holmes would not have known what to make of my strange tracks!), but the bird merely regarded me disinterestedly, and then nodded once, as though bidding me on my way.

A deserted-looking farm house.
Gladdened by my inexplicable reprieve, I continued on across Kinder Scout, wondering at the wintry landscape.  But eventually the snow and wind picked up and, having no idea where I was, I decided to retrace my steps before they were extinguished.  Below Kinder Scout, the valley was comparatively calm.  I was just passing through the village of Upper Booth when I was accosted by a deliveryman, struggling through the snow.  He asked me something, but I couldn’t hear, and so motioned for him to repeat himself while I removed my head from its shrouding.  He repeated himself, and I realised that it wasn’t just my concealed ears, but rather his thick accent which prevented my understanding him.  Sheepishly, I asked him to repeat himself again, whereupon he heaved a sigh and asked, pronouncing each word painstakingly, “Do you live around here?” although by that point he knew the answer to his question.  Sadly, I was unable to direct his parcel to the correct farm. 
My traverse followed the course of an old Roman road...

I spent the afternoon walking across the ridge opposite the hostel, ending at the enshrouded Back Tor.  On the slopes down to Castleton, the snow gave way with incredible abruptness to green, grassy fields, as though there was a strict line drawn by the weather gods, beyond which the snow could not trespass. 

More Sherlock Holmes was in order for the evening, before I retired early.  Thankfully, the hostel was so empty that I had my room to myself my entire stay.  This was particularly fortunate, given that my restlessness at night would have driven any bunk-mates insane.  I was constantly coughing, sneezing, tossing and turning, and slept—or so it seemed—in intervals of 15 minutes.  By turns I would awake to find my teeth chattering, and so turn on the heater, only to find myself in a bed of sweat a half-hour later.  More amusingly, I woke myself on several occasions mumbling Watsonian questions to the empty night.

...And reached Winhill Pike
The next day, feeling somewhat restored by a hearty breakfast and not having learned my lesson about the effects of a day in the snow on my constitution, I set out to the east of the valley, making my way along the ridge, the snow coming down more thickly as the path rose.  At one point I passed a deserted-looking farm-house and wondered what it would be like to live above the world like this in the winter-time.  My traverse followed the course of an old Roman road, and reached Winhill Pike, before descending below the tree-line to Ladybower Reservoir which, in stark contrast to the landscape I had just left, was brilliantly sunlit by early-afternoon rays. 
Ladybower Reservoir...was brilliantly sunlit by early-afternoon rays

In the evening I sat up in the common room, reading more Sherlock Holmes and pondering what dreams the night’s stories would give me.  The hostel was more inhabited on this evening, and a group of kids were turned loose by their parents in the common room, where all semblance of order degenerated into a raucous game of “It”, in which my sedentary form on one of the couches appeared to play the role of “Base”, as periodically, one of them would hide behind me while his or her pursuer was deterred by my strangled wheezing and the barrage of germs expelled by periodic fits of coughing.
It was with some sadness that I departed the winter wonderland in the morning, and made my way (no thanks to the vagaries of British Rail, horribly mangled by privatisation) back to Cambridge, where the arduous chore of packing my bags now awaits me.  

Postscript.  After writing this post, I idly googled "red grouse" and "kinder scout", and as you can see from this video, I am not the only person to have had a run-in with this formidable creature, although the videographer seems to have manipulated his video to make the Grouse look much smaller than it is in real life...


  1. I feel compelled to quote this Wallace Stevens poem in response to your travel journal:

    The Snow Man

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.